Fifteen-year veteran journalist David Berlind has built a career around his work in the technology sector.
He's now using the tools of the sector to establish a "media transparency channel," where he provides the raw data he uses - such as audio of interviews and e-mails - to write his columns. Berlind talked to PRWeek about his self-preservation as a mainstream journalist, the Journalist Online Transparency System [JOTS], and what his counterparts think of his brave, new experiment. Note: This interview appeared in shortened form in the March 14 issue of PRWeek. In the spirit of Berlind's site, the entire Q&A transcript follows.
PRWEEK: Put into your own words what you're attempting to do [with the media transparency channel].
BERLIND: Established media is coming under attack as a result of some serious and unfortunate gaffes in credibility. The timing of that coincided with the uprising of an alternative source of information: the blogosphere. Leading up to the WebCred conference at Harvard [where established media and bloggers met], there was a lot of clamor about journalists needing to be more transparent. I took that to heart, and said, "Well, my credibility has not yet been called into question, but it's probably only a matter of time that it is." A lot of people were talking about transparency, but not many were practicing it. The only way we were going to move the needle on transparency is if someone starts doing it. The best definition I could come up with for transparency was to un-obscure that which is obscured. Generally speaking, the press obscures the raw material behind the work they do. You can only trust that the editor and writer didn't misquote or edit the interview to change the context. Every media channel has a channel where they broadcast content. Channel 42 on my cable network is CNN. Why can't I change the channel to 41 to see all the raw material? Just to keep them honest. Maybe practicing transparency means establishing your channel where all the polished content is, and, then, establishing a parallel one where people can get at the raw material.
PRWEEK: You mentioned in our e-mail conversation that the transparency channel is not an ZDNet or C-Net initiative. How did the company take your idea?
BERLIND: The company hasn't really taken it or left it. Obviously they're aware that I'm doing it. Internally some of the people I work with have said, "That's pretty cool." There hasn't been any official, "David, let's sit down and talk about what you're doing." Because it's truly separate from what I do on ZDNet. One reason that we're not doing it on ZDNet itself is because I need more access to the technology to play around it. I'm an editor; I don't have access to the production at C-Net networks. And, if I did, I would most certainly foul things up [laughs]. Doing it at a separate place where I have unbridled access to the underlying mechanisms is really the ideal way to go about it.
PRWEEK: When you decided to produce the media transparency channel, did you discuss it with your employer or was it something they know about now?
BERLIND: There were no discussions.
PRWEEK: In your missive about your intentions, you acknowledge the realization that traditional media is being assailed for its lack of transparency...
BERLIND: Over the past couple of years, there have been a lot of transgressions in various business communities. Right after that happens, everyone starts yelling about transparency. One of the things that started motivating me about this was self-preservation. I can't aspect the world to assume I'm credible. In a world where there are many more "journalists" and the barrier to entry has been dropped, everyone has to earn their credibility.
PRWEEK: How do you balance between the self-preservation aspects with the theme that this is better for everyone?
BERLIND: At the end of the day, you're number one asset is your credibility. Anything that elevates the credibility of journalism and the media business is good for everybody. It's good for the media companies and the consumers of that content have more of an assurance that [they're consuming] the truth. It's good for the ecosystem because it puts pressure on everyone to be clearer about what they say. When transparency is in effect, everybody is a little more on [his or her] toes about what is going on. That can only make the final product better.
PRWEEK: Some of your postings have called to light that some PR professionals and their executive clients have failed to answer questions you have about their talking points. It's something that must frighten PR people.
BERLIND: I put two postings of that nature on the transparency channel because Jay Rosen had said, make sure you post all of your thoughts on this. I was posting raw material and it was kind of like declassifying intelligence files. People get to see things they've never seen before. One of the things they might see is some of the people, who are supposedly very knowledgeable about the products I'm covering, may not be really prepared for the interview. That's a perfect example of how it might raise the bar. Once transparency is in effect, that stuff becomes much more visible to everybody and it puts a lot of pressure on everybody to get it right. We have these situations where I'm asking very obvious questions that any journalist should be asking, and they just don't have the answers. And I was pitched those stories. I didn't go looking for them; someone came to me. It doesn't do them any good if they can't tell their story, it doesn't do me any good if I can't tell the accurate story, and it doesn't do the audience any good if they can't get the whole story.
PRWEEK: You've received applause from Andy Lark, formerly [VP of global communications at Sun], and criticism from an undisclosed contact. How do you feel it will alter the relationship between journalists and PR professionals?
BERLIND: Journalists have to realize that PR professionals play a very important role. You're talking about striking a balance between transparency and access. It would not do my career, my employer, or my audience any good if I were so disrespectful in the course of my transparency that I lost access to the very people who give me the insight and scoops and make me competitive as a journalist. Andy Lark is absolutely right; the question is not how you fight transparency, but how you can become more transparent to make the PR side of the equation equally transparent. This is like "Resistance is futile." From the PR community, the response has been largely, "This is a great idea," but people get a little sensitive when you publish emails without letting them know you're going to do that. If you do that, they are going to be less inclined to be as candid with you as they might have before. You have to come up with a protocol on how to do this; that's why it is an experiment. Let's see how we can manage this, so there is a transparency while everyone in the ecosystem has a comfort level. If someone sends me an e-mail, I write back, "Is it all right if I publish this?" Something that makes the policy clear [is needed], so that everyone is aware of it. That is what the experiment is about. Until we start doing it, we're not going to flush out any of the issues or make any discoveries, If I want to have a meeting with CEO of the Intel or Sun, I can e-mail them and they'll probably e-mail me back. But they don't maintain their own schedules, so if I want to get on it, they're going to send me to someone else. If I am disrespectful, I'm not going to get what I need out of them.
PRWEEK: What about embargos?
BERLIND: That's a protocol issue. Embargos usually have an expiration date, which, of course, I will embargo. But once that date is reached, I can publish the raw materials. People may say [honoring embargoes] isn't a great system because that's not 100% transparent. But how transparent are we today?
PRWEEK: You've been involved been with this since the beginning of the year. How have you monitored your progress and are you confident you'll press on?
BERLIND: I'm pushing forward with it. Postings are getting up there ever so often. One of my discoveries is that it's not easy to practice transparency from a time perspective. It's laborious to maintain that channel, that's the idea behind a JOTS - journalist online transparency system - a set of requirements that a programmer could look at and say, "I can build that system." So transparency requires a minimal amount of overhead to what you do. It's not just putting it up there. Let's say you're doing a story, and you have five e-mails, two press releases, an audio interview, and paper documents. How do you package those raw materials into something people came get at? It's possible to do that now, only if you want to make that your full time job.
PRWEEK: In order for this proceed, does it require the participation of the PR professional?
BERLIND: Someone sent me a pitch, which I published on the transparency channel without telling anyone. That set off quite a few alarms, so the feedback is essential to pulling off the transparency. You have to understand how it affects all the constituents. The PR community has to engage in this conversation. They can go to the media channel and put comments there. I don't think we're going to have a prescription for transparency. Over time, I would love to see everyone who is part of the ecosystem get involved.
PRWEEK: What would you say to tech PR people who might be concerned about this transparency channel?
BERLIND: Publishing my policy and making sure people are on board with it. Within the next thirty to sixty days, all of my e-mails will say, "Go here to learn more about my transparency channel." For the PR professional who hear things on the grapevine [where] my name is a red flag, I would say, I've been in the high-tech journalism for 15 years. Most of the people in the PR community know me. Some have said, "That's a very cool thing you're doing there. Let me give you some input."
Name: David Berlind
Title: Executive editor
Preferred contact method: David.Berlind@cnet.com